Workers in Britain have always had to fight for basic trade union rights. In Nottinghamshire back in 1811 the stockingframe knitters resisted being forced to accept lower rates of pay for producing shoddy goods. Trade unions were illegal so the Luddites, as they were known, had to go underground and form a secret society to defend their livelihoods. Despite the government trying to infiltrate the Luddites with spies and sending in more troops than were fighting against Napoleon in Spain, the knitters held firm and beat off the attack from their bosses. Two hundred years later workers have been deprived of the right to take effective industrial action and once again firm defensive action is necessary.
ROLE OF THE LABOUR PARTY
The Labour Party was reluctantly formed by some trade unions in 1906 because they were unable to obtain legislation which allowed workers to effectively defend themselves in the workplace. Back in 1901 the Taff Vale court ruling decreed that employers could sue unions for damages resulting from loss of trade brought about by industrial action. The idea was that having Members of Parliament sponsored by unions would enable the necessary changes in the laws to be passed. The Liberal Government elected in 1906 needed the support of the new Labour members to have a majority in the House of Commons. In return for Labour votes in Parliament the law was changed in favour of the unions. Even at this early stage some Labourites wanted to turn the unions into tame dogs. Sidney Webb, (the future author of the Labour Party’s constitution including Clause 4), described the concessions made to trade unionists as “nothing less than monstrous”!
IMPERIALIST WAR MONGERING
Once having entered the capitalist parliament it wasn’t long before the Labourites started to turn on the very people who were their basis of support – trade unionists. During World War I the Munitions of War Act, passed with Labour support, declared strikes illegal. In 1916 the pro-war Labour parliamentary leaders entered the War Government and enthusiastically set about trying to put down strikes by engineering and other workers.
FIRST LABOUR GOVERNMENT
In 1924 the first Labour government was formed and it activated the draconian Emergency Powers Act to deal with industrial disputes. The communist J.C. Campbell wrote an article urging troops sent in to break up strikes not to shoot workers even if ordered to do so. The new government tried to prosecute Campbell for sedition but backed off because of popular opposition. This led to the fall of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government.
In 1926 the miners were resisting a reduction of wages and an increase in hours of work. The TUC called out the unions on a general strike in support of the miners. Meanwhile the Labour leaders in Parliament – some of them like J.H. Thomas actually trade union leaders – refused to support the strike! Only twenty years after its foundation as a party to represent trade unionists the Labour Party was showing its true colours as an anti-working class party.
As Stalin commented at the time:
“… the TUC General Council and its ‘political committee’, the Labour Party—proved to be internally demoralised and corrupt. As we know the heads of this general staff proved to be either downright traitors to the miners and the British working class in general (Thomas, Henderson, MacDonald and Co.), or spineless fellow-travellers of these traitors who feared a struggle and still more a victory of the working class (Purcell, Hicks and others).”
Thanks to the perfidity of their Labourite leaders the unions were defeated and the bosses seized the opportunity to reintroduce restrictions on trade unions – the Trade Disputes Act, 1927 – although nothing like as bad as the ones we have now!
WORLD WAR II AND AFTER
In 1940 the wartime Coalition Government, in which Labour was a major partner, made strikes and other forms of industrial action illegal but this did not stop many “unofficial” actions taking place during the war. In 1945 a Labour government was elected and the following year it repealed the 1927 Act. However the wartime emergency order banning industrial action remained in force until 1951 – and with the support of TUC leaders. This did not stop many sections of the working class, such as dockers and power workers, from taking illegal industrial action in defence of their wages and working conditions. The response of the Labour government was to declare States of Emergency and send in troops on strike-breaking duties. After all, a government that had no hesitation in waging brutal imperialist wars in Malaya, Korea and Kenya would hardly shirk from breaking up a few strikes!
WILSON AND CALLAGHAN
The Labour governments of the nineteen sixties and seventies tried to crack down on the unions which had grown strong in the period of post-war full employment. In 1966 the seamen struck over atrocious pay and working conditions and the Wilson government declared a State of Emergency claiming it was all a “communist conspiracy”. Then they used the dispute as an excuse for introducing – with TUC connivance – a pay freeze and severe pay restraint for the rest of its term in office. In 1974-9 the Labour governments led by Wilson and Callaghan persuaded the union leaders to sell out their members by entering into the “social contract” whereby pay increases in excess of a norm set by the government would not be demanded. Despite this the rank and file members revolved against this attack on their living standards culminating in the “winter of discontent” in 1978-9 when many low paid public sector workers got fed up and took action.
The Tory governments of 1979-97 managed to destroy virtually all of the rights that trade unionists have won over the last two hundred years. At first the Labour Party opposed these changes but then, in the 1990s, the Labour leaders made it clear to the bosses that they had no intention of fundamentally altering the anti-trade union laws. This helped convince billionaire capitalists such as Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere – the latter joined the Labour Party – that Labour could again be trusted to form a government that would not flinch from cracking down on the working class.
The only change in industrial relations law the New Labour governments made was to introduce a legal right to be a trade union member and hold ballots of employees which can oblige their employer to formally recognise a trade union. This is a deliberate ploy to deflect attention from what really matters – the right of employees to take any necessary industrial action unfettered by legal restrictions which render it ineffective.
WHY DO LABOUR SCAB?
At first sight it seems very odd that a political party founded by and largely financed by trade unions should have such a shocking history of opposing trade union action. However it is important to understand that the trade union leaders of a century ago, those respectable gentlemen, were not aiming to fundamentally change the system under which we live; capitalism. Rather what they wanted was for the capitalist ruling class to accept the working class and their trade unions as legitimate parts of capitalist society and concede some moderate social reforms. In return for such recognition the union leaders would endeavour to ensure that the economic and social demands of workers were moderated and would not present any serious challenge to the rule of capital.
As detailed above, the trade union leaders and Labour politicians delivered on their promises to the ruling class. For example Ernest Bevin, founder of the Transport and General Workers, when Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government, led the formation of the imperialist NATO military alliance. These traitors to the working class are routinely awarded seats in the House of Lords and lucrative sinecures when they retire from their union positions and seats in the House of Commons. These servants of the bourgeoisie will do nothing to jeopardise their comfortable positions.
The New Labour governments maintained the Old Labour tradition of condemning and opposing any attempts by trade unionists to defend their pay and conditions. Under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown the attack on the pensions of public sector workers began. The trade union leaders offered no real resistance and agreed to a worsening of public employees’ pension terms – working longer, paying more and receiving less.
PUBLIC SECTOR CUTS
The Coalition Government from 2010 introduced a programme of massive public sector spending cuts resulting in job losses for tens of thousands of public employees and reduced services for the public, especially for the most vulnerable sections of the population. The trade unions have taken some very limited industrial action to try to defend jobs and pension rights but even this rather feeble response has been opposed by Labour Party leaders and MP’s who have condemned the strike action taken. Many of these MP’s are members of and receive financial assistance from the very same trade unions whose defensive actions they denounce.
SMASH ANTI-TRADE UNION LAWS!
The only way in which working people can defend themselves is by deliberately subverting and breaking the anti-trade union laws. Pleading with Labour politicians is a waste of time. Some employees, especially postal workers, have blatantly broken these oppressive laws and got away with it. We should not be intimidated by threats to seize our unions’ assets. The answer to any such moves is further industrial action until such time as stolen assets are returned. Just like the Luddites all those years ago, we need to develop forms of action that the bosses and governments cannot easily defeat. If the Luddites could do it, so can we.
DISAFFILIATE FROM THE LABOUR PARTY
The Labour Party has very few working class members and only a small minority of working people vote Labour in elections. Most people have seen through Labour because our bitter experience of Labour governments has shown that Labour politicians fawn at the feet of the rich and powerful – such as Rupert Murdoch – and do what is in their interests and not those of the great mass of the people. It was the “light financial regulation” of the New Labour Governments which allowed the bankers – the “wealth creators” as Brown called them – to engage in wild speculation and create the worst financial crisis ever.
There are some people, especially Trotskyites within and around the Labour Party, who try to deceive us that this sow’s ear can be turned into a silk purse, that this reactionary party can be changed into one that defends and champions the working class. They try to divert the working class from militant action in defence of their livelihoods into capitulation to voting Labour, a party which has shown itself from its early days to be an enemy of the working class.
It is high time that trade unionists stopped giving the Labour Party funds which are used to attack the working class. The last Labour Government was trying to take its privatisation programme of Royal Mail further. The Communication Workers Union had to threaten to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and thus potentially cut off considerable funds to Labour in order for the Government to back off for a while. If your union is affiliated to Labour then campaign to get your branch and the whole union to disaffiliate from this scab organisation. It is ridiculous that an anti-trade union party is being funded by trade unions
EXPOSE THE LABOUR PARTY!
SMASH ANTI-TRADE UNION LAWS!